The Blog is Back!! Essential Traits and Existentialism

This last semester was insanely busy and I took a bit of a hiatus from blogging to keep on top of everything.  But the semester is finally over and so now the blog is making a comeback.  There are several posts that I had started and never finished that will hopefully be getting revisited and prepared for posting in the near future.

This post aims to summarize some of what I have been thinking about this semester in my own studies and tie that in to some familiar themes on this blog.  Much of my work this semester has had to do, either directly or indirectly, with the school of philosophy known as existentialism.  

I find this branch of philosophy fascinating because of the kinds of questions it is asking and the way it goes about answering them.  Existentialism is very motivated by the kinds of epistemological limitations that I have discussed in previous posts, leading existentialists to approach philosophy from a very different angle.  Rather than attempting to paint an objective metaphysical picture of the world, existentialism begins by noting our subjective perspective on the world and attempts to describe the way in which we might live existentially given this finite/subjective viewpoint.

A particularly famous example of this way of thinking is found in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  

To briefly outline Sartre’s claims, Sartre believes that as far as human beings are concerned, “existence precedes essence.”  What Sartre means by this is that nothing essentially defines me as me.  I simply exist as me and however I define or understand myself determines what the essence, or core being, of me really is.  

To illustrate with a simple example:  If I cut my hair (which I should probably do, though I was just informed that I look like Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol…), have I become a different person?  Most people would easily say “no.”  What if I dyed it blonde?  My girlfriend might be pissed at me, but I don’t think this would constitute me being someone else.  

These are relatively simple examples.  

What if I do something more complicated: I get plastic surgery and replace my chin and my nose.  I am now unrecognizable.  Am I a different person?  I think most people would still say that it is me beneath these changes, not someone else.  

Let’s get really complicated: what if I underwent surgery to have my gender changed?  My gut is still to say that I would be the same person, even if in a very different physical manifestation.

So far we have only discussed potential physical changes.  Let’s talk more abstractly.  

What if I woke up one morning and decided I would no longer hold any religious beliefs.  I became an abject atheist and quit all associations with Christianity.  Would I be someone new?  

What if I became convinced of solipsism: that I am the only person that exists.  Would that make me someone new?  

What if I underwent therapy and radically changed my personality to become extremely extroverted and aggressive.  Would that make me a different person?  

What if I lost my memory and could not recall who my friends and family were.  Would I still be me?

The point of this lengthy list of questions is simply this:  I don’t think that any of these questions presents us with a change which would actually result in a new person coming into existence.  So if I can change almost everything about me, from my personality to my appearance to my beliefs to my memories, and still be me what is it that is essentially me?  

Sartre claims such an essence, such an underlying core being, simply doesn’t exist on its own.  Instead, that core being is whatever I make it to be.  I exist, how I exist is up to me to decide.

Now, I think Sartre might be willing to push this a little bit farther than I have thus far. 

So far we have only talked about individual persons and their essence or core being. What happens, however, if we broaden this to talk about the human race as a whole?  Is there anything that is essentially human- anything that to lack would make us un-human? 

The predominant philosophical tradition has been that rationality defines the essence of humanity: the ability to think and reason is what makes us who we are as human beings.  

But what about the person born with a severe mental handicap, someone who was born without the cerebral capacity for reason even if their basic biological functions were intact.  Would such an individual, with their human DNA and human appearance but without any higher reasoning capacities be human? 

My sense is that most philosophers would be quick to say “yes” and seek some explanation for this seeming exception to the rule that reasoning defines the essence of humanity. 

We could make similar cases, I think, about many other things: two arms are not required to be human.  Nor two legs.  Nor two eyes.  Nor any other physical feature, really.  DNA might mark off the human species, but everyone has slightly different DNA and human DNA is remarkably similar to the DNA of other species.  So does that minuscule difference from other species while accounting for variations within our species actually separate people from not-people?

In then end, we might come to a similar point: Nothing in particular defines the essence of humanity.  Humanity determines its own essence through the way it constitutes itself. 

Now, however, I want to push this point farther than even Sartre takes it, at least in my knowledge of Sartre. 

Can we define the essence of anything? 

Pick an object or a creature, any one, and see if we can find an underlying core that must be present for it to be what it is. 

I think a case can be made that no such core exists for any object, that the meaning of things is defined by the one bestowing meaning on it. 

That final statement is certainly a radical one, and that is something we will have to explore in a bit more depth in other posts.  In particular, I want to address down the line three related questions:

1.  What does it mean for someone to bestow meaning?

2.  How is bestowing meaning related to determining our own essence in the way Sartre describes?

3.  What happens when we bestow different meanings on things?


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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